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Ingredients of South East Asia - February 2006 Newsletter

Since Cambodia opened its doors to tourists in the mid-1990s, tourists have been welcome to just about every part of Southeast Asia. And more and more people are finding out that Asian cuisine goes far beyond Chinese take-out and sushi.

Southeast Asia is comprised of the region of Indochina—Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma)—and the Malay Archipelago—Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor, and the Philippines. While each country has its own unique delicacies, you will find many of the same ingredients cross different cultures. We will highlight some of the commonly-used herbs, spices and produce are in Indochinese, Malaysian, and Singaporean food—some of which have become part of the American dining scene.

Two basic staple foods that transcend all Southeast Asian groups are rice and noodles. Out of the multiple types of rice in Asian cuisine, only two are associated with Thai food. Thai jasmine rice is made of long grains and is distinguished by its fragrance. This rice should be rinsed at least three times before cooking in a saucepan. The other variety is sticky or glutinous rice. To learn more about the numerous kinds of rice, check out our August 2005 newsletter.

Originating in China, five basic types of noodles are identified with Southeast Asian cuisine. Rice river noodles are broad, flat and made from white rice flour. Another is rice vermicelli, which are small and wiry-looking. Medium, flat rice flour noodles look like thin strips. Yellow from coloring, egg noodles should be shaken loose prior to cooking. Wiry, translucent noodles made from mung beans’ starch—cellophane noodles are sometimes referred to as vermicelli. Like Italian pasta, all these noodle varieties are sold dried. They need to be soaked in water for 20 minutes before cooking.

Thai Cuisine

Thailand has historically been divided into four areas: North, Northeast, Central, and South. Environmental and cultural differences resulted in very diverse cuisine among the four regions. In the Central area, much of the food consisted of freshwater fish from rivers and canals or sea fish from the Gulf of Thailand. Furthermore, the arable land allowed for every house to have its own vegetable plot. Crops like cabbages, tomatoes, long beans, and water spinach were readily available.

Dishes in both Central and Southern Thailand took advantage of plants growing in the west. Characterized by mountains and wilderness, the Northern diet relied more on hunting and gathering rather than planting. Some meat sources included buffalo or deer. The Northeast, inhabited mostly by Laos natives, was a historically plagued by famine and droughts. With meat and vegetables in limited supply, spices were used constantly with sticky rice. Frogs and insects also became part of the food regimen.

An essential seasoning of Thai cooking is fish sauce, nam pla. Generally used in many Asian meals, fish sauce is made from the liquid of fish fermenting in salt. Every household would prepare their own sauce of varying saltiness in an earthenware jar. Nowadays, fish sauce is available at any Asian grocery store by the bottle. Most stores carry brands from either Thailand or Vietnam. Fish sauce is at its best if it still has a light, whisky color and a salty taste with no bitterness.

Of course, you have not really eaten Thai food if you have never sampled a curry dish. A spicy sauce made from chili peppers, curry flavors vegetables, fish, or meat. First introduced to this region by Indian traders, the chillis are pounded to form a powder. When combined with water, the powder can become a paste, giving curry dishes their stew-like consistency. Additional local ingredients such as basil and coconut milk also lend an aromatic flavor to these stews as well. Curries tend to be identified by color. Red curry stems from red chillies; green curry is spawned from green chillies. And yellow curry contains chillies, cumin, turmeric, coriander, and mustard seeds. Both Asian and American markets carry curry pastes in cans, jars, and boxed packets

Flavorful herbs are another key characteristic of Thai gastronomy. The dark leaves and juice of kaffir limes offer a potent citrus taste. Thai hot and sour soup, Tom yam, would not be complete without the leaves’ presence. The leaves are also combined with garlic, ginger, galangal (Thai ginger), chillies, and fingerroot to create curry paste.

Another source of flavoring used by Thais is the lemon grass plant. Pale green and almost white, these bulbous stalks lend a lemony, mint taste to a delicacy. With a tough outer layer, lemon grass is usually taken from a dish right before dining. Fully cooked, the grass provides a lemon, tinged-with-ginger flavor without any lingering acidity. Chopped lemon grass rings can be stored in the freezer and used later without having to defrost.

Vietnamese Cuisine

Perhaps an extension of the nation’s historic war, North and South Vietnam differ greatly in their diet. In the North, where Chinese invaders once had control, the food shows Chinese and Laotian touches. Dishes are stir-fried or grilled over charcoal. Southern cuisine, on the other hand, shows a Cambodian bent with the use of chillies and shrimp paste.

A common denominator in both regions’ cooking is the freshness of many Vietnamese meals. The reliance on al dente vegetables, such as bean sprouts and uncooked mint, mixed with nuts or other raw veggies gives dishes a wholesome quality.

Vietnamese spring rolls are a wholesome, not-fried alternative to Chinese egg rolls. These petite wraps are characterized by their rice paper packaging. Bahn Trang paper-thin, white crepes which have a criss-cross pattern from the trays they are dried on. For an exotic meal, you can lay out blanched filling ingredients such as baby shrimp, rice vermicelli, pork or bean sprouts. Guests can stuff rice paper with food according to their liking and dampen the sheet with water to make edges stick together.

Rice flour is a crucial item in a Vietnamese kitchen. The flour is the main element of a Vietnamese pancake/crepe, Bánh Xèo. These mouthwatering pancakes are stuffed with minced pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. They are garnished with mint and served with a spicy, sweet dipping sauce.

Malaysian/Singaporean Cuisine

Truly an ethnic melting pot, Malaysia has inherited Chinese, Indian, and Arabic roots. A majority of Malays are Muslims who consume rice, but not pork or alcohol. However, similar to its Thai neighbors in the north, Malay cooking extensively uses chili peppers and thick coconut milk. East Asian spices contribute flavor to many of the sauces. At lunch and dinner, rice is generally served simultaneously with four to five braised dishes. Malaysian dishes are typically seasoned with curry, shallots, garlic, shrimp paste, tamarind, lemongrass, or coconut milk. Meals are accompanied by a sambal, or sauce.

Called asam in Malaysian, tamarind is a tropical fruit whose pulp is mixed with water, creating a sour, lemon flavor. Tamarind juice is a main ingredient in Worcestershire sauce. In Malay cuisine, it gives a lift to many sauces and delicacies like the trademark spicy peanut sauce served with satay. A common evening snack in Malaysia, satay is also a popular appetizer in Western countries. The skewers of grilled, marinated chicken or beef make ideal hors d’oeuvres.

Due to the close proximity, many of the same ethnicities in Malaysia are also represented in Singapore. From Cantonese to Hainanese, Chinese cooking plays a dominant role in typical Singaporean food. Malay and Indian culture has affected the country’s food as well. Some of the hybrid dishes you will find there include fish head curry—red snapper semi-stewed in a dense curry and served with rice or bread—rice vermicelli ladled with peanut satay sauce and fried tofu with sweet sauce.

Cambodian/Lao Cuisine

They say if you take Thai cuisine and throw out the spices, you will have Cambodian food. Cambodian dishes rely on the original ingredients for the crux of the flavoring. The more frequent methods of cooking are steaming, grilling over a charcoal fire, or a quick stir-fry in a wok.

One of the most popular flavorings is tik marij, a mixture of ground black pepper, salt, and lime juice. A main course in the Cambodian diet is simply cooked meat or fish with the tik marij. Following in the footsteps of Vietnamese meals, the entrée is usually served with a fresh, raw salad or vegetable.

Banana leaves also come into play in Southeast Asian cookery. They are excellent for wrapping food during grilling or steaming. The leaves retain liquid while adding some flavor to a dish. They are on the shelves in many Asian specialty stores. A favorite Cambodian dessert consists of grilling sticky rice balls with coconut and jackfruit inside a banana leaf. This confection can be enjoyed hot or cold.

A hodgepodge of different Asian culinary tastes, Lao cuisine combines a love of sticky rice, raw greens, and spicy dipping sauce. Their national dish, larb, is a tangy mixture of marinated meat or fish, sometimes prepared raw, offered with a combination of vegetables, herbs and spices. Another popular dish is tam mak houng, green papaya salad.

Aside from a penchant for crisp green veggies, Lao foods favor sour over sweet. A well-known phrase in Lao culture translates to “sweet makes you dizzy; bitter makes you healthy.” Lao natives incorporate more mint and dill than their Asian neighbors. Galangal, lemongrass, shallots, and garlic are also herbs and vegetables seen as a necessity.

If you can’t afford to travel, you can certainly still get an inkling of the food. Today, Thai, Malaysian, and Vietnamese eateries are as common as McDonald’s on American streets. Although Cambodian and Singaporean restaurants are rarer, their influences are felt in pan-Asian and Asian-fusion menus. For those adventurous enough to try preparing their own Southeast Asian feast, there are plenty of cookbook guides and helpful utensils in Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen.


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